Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tribe of Individualists

After noting dissent among libertarians in the second of yesterday’s entries, I should note that I really don’t place that much value on tribal unity or team loyalty per se — except in so far as they’re necessary (a) to achieve some goal more important than the issues that divide or (b) to demonstrate one’s capacity to make peace and avoid needless conflict. I don’t normally think of sticking with the team even when it’s wrong as a virtue, though (and would rather get at the truth than maintain a phony united front).

The whole point of justice is to treat like cases alike — rather than saying, for instance, “When my tribe murders, it’s OK because we are inherently glorious, and when the other tribe makes great art, it does not count as beautiful because I dislike anything they do.” We should be distrustful of any “philosophy” that encourages, say, always siding with women, always siding with the poor, always siding with whites, always assuming the truth of certain favored texts, etc.

Justice aims to be global, impartial, and objective, even if practical limitations argue for great deference to local customs, etiquette, and knowledge — and for avoiding imperial ambitions. Rather than sticking up for one’s own neighborhood, nation, workers’ local, class, or family, the thinking — and moral — person’s first duty, before all else and before any specific policy or ethical disputes are examined, is to step back and attempt to survey things more objectively. Loyalty/disloyalty, then, is not per se a good heuristic for spotting wrongdoing.

The comparable error among the abstract/globalist thinkers would be “sticking to one’s principles” even when the evidence mounts that they lead to disaster or are simply inadequate for certain tasks. The left and right both do it, albeit in slightly different ways: I’d say the left and liberals refuse to rethink their ideas, convinced they’re already quite refined and sophisticated, while people on the right tend to think in a deliberately obtuse fashion that keeps things from getting too complicated in the first place.

In either form, though, stubbornness is not a virtue (though endurance and consistency often are). It’s bad enough people are biased, partisan, stubborn, bullying, and self-righteous without declaring all those things inherently virtuous. Time and again, though, you’ll hear people say with admiration things like “That guy doesn’t back down,” the sort of attribute useful for picking your lawyer, perhaps, but not for getting to the truth — useful for defending your “side” but not necessarily for being on the correct side in the first place. (And I’m increasingly convinced that people’s loyalty to certain principles or teams is so strong that they care more about these things than about producing good outcomes — not really an argument against utilitarianism but another reason to adopt a pessimistic “futilitarianism” when it comes to predicting humanity’s chances for happiness.)

With all that in mind, let’s take a moment in tomorrow’s entry to mark the arrival of Blasphemy Day.

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